Syria’s government is confident, but the country is polarized

President Bashar al-Assad’s government is confident that it has weathered the worst of the turmoil sweeping Syria and will soon be able to overcome any remaining challenges to its survival.

Whether that confidence is justified — and how broadly it is shared — is in question. Even as the government boasts that it is prevailing over the eight-month-old uprising, the economy is imploding, protests persist in many parts of the country and an armed rebellion is stirring.

On the streets of Damascus, the capital, where the revolt has never managed to gain traction and Assad can count on significant support, the outward appearance of normalcy, the bustling streets and the packed cafes mask an undertow of mistrust and fear about where the country is heading.

But during a rare, authorized visit to Syria by a Western journalist, conducted under close government supervision, it became clear that not only do Assad and his allies appear to be in no imminent danger of falling but that they also feel no pressure to offer concessions to those who have been taking to the streets for months to call for radical change.

Rather, the government is touting a package of limited changes that would leave the existing power of the state intact while focusing on crushing the remainder of the protest movement by force. That “security first” approach has failed to prevent demonstrations from erupting repeatedly in many parts of the country, but it does appear to have diminished their size and scope.

“The Syrian leadership is quite confident and very strong, and we feel sure that despite all the international campaigns against Syria, we will survive,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Miqdad. “Syria is secure . . . and will be stronger after this crisis. It will be a new Syria. Give us time, and it will be reborn.”

Western diplomats scoff at the government’s plan for changes and its proposals for dialogue with a handpicked selection of mildly critical opposition figures who command little support on the streets. But the government’s confidence is rooted in more than mere bravado, they say.

Silence from the majority

Nearly eight months of protests have failed to dent the Assad family’s grip on power. There have been no significant defections from the army or the government. Though the United States and the European Union have called for Assad to step aside, vetoes at the United Nations by China and Russia have prevented the kind of united front against Syria that helped bring down Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi.

Because Syria lies at the nexus of a web of overlapping regional, sectarian and ethnic conflicts among Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Arabs and Israelis, the government is convinced that the West will not dare intervene militarily, as it did in Libya, despite increasingly desperate pleas from the protest movement for it to do so.

“Syria has a strong army, and Syria is not alone,” said Bassem Abu Abdullah, a professor of international affairs at Damascus University and a member of the dominant Baath Party. “Attacking Syria means regional war, because we will attack Israel directly. Hezbollah will participate. Iran will participate. This is not in the interests of Europe and America.”

As the months have dragged on, the mood in the capital has shifted palpably, said Waddah Abd Rabbo, editor in chief of the state-run al-Watan newspaper.

“When this started, there was a panic,” he said. “Damascus was empty, and people were afraid. Now the government is two steps ahead of the demonstrations, so you can feel they are much more confident.”

For example, the government has unleashed huge crowds of its supporters onto the streets twice in the past 10 days to stage mass rallies that have far eclipsed any the opposition has mustered in the capital.

And although opposition activists decry the demonstrations as coerced, it appears that Assad enjoys a considerable degree of genuine support from the city’s middle- and upper-class elites, who perceive the uprising as a revolt of the provinces and the poor.

As he shopped for suits on upscale Shaalan Street, real estate agent Alaa Raji, 37, said he initially supported the demands for reform but changed his mind after demonstrators started calling for the overthrow of the president. Now he derides the protesters as tools of foreign agents and Islamic extremists.

“I don’t see them as brave, and neither do I respect them, and I don’t care if they are killed,” he said, proudly displaying on his iPhone photos of himself, wrapped in an Assad flag, attending a recent pro-government rally. “Those people want change, but they don’t know what it means, and if we follow them, maybe Syria will go down an even worse path, with chaos and foreign intervention like in Libya and Iraq.”

The ascendancy of Islamists in Tunisia and Egypt, whose revolts inspired the Syrian uprising, along with the scenes of bloodshed and destruction in Libya and the specter of Christians being killed on the streets of Cairo, have all helped reinforce the government’s argument. Assad loyalists say the demonstrations in Syria are led by Sunni extremists who would trample the secularism enforced by the Assad regime and threaten the country’s minority Christian and Alawite sects.

The failure of the Syrian opposition to present a united front and articulate a clear vision of what a post-Assad future would look like is also keeping silent the majority of Syrians, who have neither joined the protests nor support the government, Western diplomats say.

“The regime has got a plan, and this could be good enough for a lot of people who just want stability,” said one diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “What the opposition needs to do is convince them that the status quo under the regime is worse than the transition.”

Yet there are many who question whether the government’s plan will be enough to stabilize the country, even if the security forces do succeed in crushing the revolt. Thousands of people have been detained, including many key protest organizers, and dozens of activists have been forced to flee. But outside Damascus, the protests have proved irrepressible, and the death toll — already estimated by the United Nations to exceed 3,000 — rises daily, creating new resentments and new reasons to take to the streets.

‘A big hate in the country’

On Friday, 40 people died in protests calling for the imposition of a no-fly zone in Syria. Over half of those killed died in the troubled city of Homs, according to the Local Coordination Committees, a group that organizes and monitors protests.

The result of the bloodshed is a country increasingly polarized by sect, class and political conviction.

“The government is winning, but not in a big way,” said a Damascene journalist who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the subject. “We’re standing still, and the problem is, there’s a big hate in the country now.”

Though the majority has not decided where its loyalties lie, “I don’t call it a silent majority. It’s a fearful majority,” the journalist said. “They are afraid of everything, afraid of now and afraid for the future they don’t know.

“The protests are smaller now, because the army is there, but what happens when you remove the army?”

And protests erupt on a regular basis, even in Damascus. On a government-escorted visit to the working-class and deeply conservative Midan neighborhood, the calm of one recent afternoon was suddenly shattered by the sound of merchants pulling down their shutters as a roar began to swell. A “martyr” to the cause of the opposition — a soldier who had defected in Homs — was being buried, and his funeral procession was accompanied by a noisy anti-government demonstration.

“God is great!” shouted those in the crowd of several hundred young men, as they marched up the narrow street toward a cemetery. And then, with greater force, arose the chant of what has become the chief rallying cry of the protest movement around the country: “The people want the execution of the president!”

The rage, energy and determination were palpable, suggesting that these young men, who have been taking to the streets on a regular basis since March, will not soon tire of their efforts to topple the regime.

A short distance and a world away, a group of students from privileged families debated politics over lattes and cigarettes in a cafe at the glitzy Cham City mall. Four of them supported the government to varying degrees. A fifth, who gave his name as Bassam, remained silent until asked for his views.

“I support the protesters, and I want total change. Including the president,” he said, adding that he had taken part in protests.

The tone of the discussion shifted abruptly.

“My president is untouchable, and I will kill people for him, just as they are killing against him,” screamed one of the students, Mariam, as she kicked Bassam under the table.

Bassam responded quietly that he was prepared to die for the sake of change. “My life is not more precious than the lives of those who have gone before,” he said.

The friends checked their watches and said it was time to go. Taking their farewells, they headed into the darkening streets and went their separate ways.

Liz Sly is the Post’s Beirut bureau chief. She has spent more than 15 years covering the Middle East, including the Iraq war. Other postings include Africa, China and Afghanistan.

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